Ebenezer Elliott

Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 30 January 1819; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 4:334-37.

Keswick, Jan. 30, 1819.

My dear Sir,

I received your little volume [Night: a Descriptive Poem] yesterday. You may rest assured that you ascribed the condemnation in the Monthly Magazine to the true cause.

There are abundant evidences of power in it; its merits are of the most striking kind; and its defects are not less striking, both in plan and execution. The stories had better each have been separate, than linked together without any natural or necessary connection. The first consists of such grossly improbable circumstances, that it is altogether as incredible as if it were a supernatural tale. It is also a hateful story, presenting nothing but what is painful. In the second, the machinery is preposterously disproportionate to the occasion. And in all the poems there is too much ornament, too much effort, too much labour. You think you can never embroider your drapery too much; and that the more gold and jewels you can fasten on it the richer the effect must be. The consequence is, that there is a total want of what painters call breadth and keeping, and, therefore, the effect is lost.

You will say that this opinion proceeds from the erroneous system which I have pursued in my own Writings, and which has prevented my poems from obtaining the same popularity as those of Lord Byron and Walter Scott. But look at those poets whose rank is established beyond all controversy. Look at the Homeric poems; at Virgil, Dante, Ariosto, Milton. Do not ask yourself what are the causes of the failure or success of your contemporaries; their failure or success is not determined yet, — a generation, an age, a century will not suffice to determine it. But see what it is by which those poets have rendered themselves immortal: who, after the lapse of centuries, are living and acting upon us still.

I should not speak to you thus plainly of your fault, — the sin by which the angels fell, — if it were not for the great powers which are thus injured by misdirection. And it is for the sake of bearing testimony to those powers, and thereby endeavouring to lessen the effect which a rascally criticism may have produced upon your feelings, that I am now writing. That criticism may give you pain, because it may affect the minds of persons not very capable of forming an opinion for themselves, who may either be glad to be encouraged in despising your production, or grieved at seeing it condemned. But in any other point of view it is unworthy of a moment's thought.

You may do great things if you will cease to attempt so much; if you will learn to proportion your figures to your canvas. Cease to overlay your foregrounds with florid ornaments, and be persuaded that in a poem as well as in a picture there must be lights and shades; that the general effect can never be good unless the subordinate parts are kept down, and that the brilliancy of one part is brought out and heightened by the repose of the other. One word more.

With your powers of thought and language, you need not seek to produce effect by monstrous incidents or exaggerated characters. These drams have been administered so often that they are beginning to lose their effect. And it is to truth and nature that we must come at last. Trust to them, and they will bear you through. You are now squandering wealth with which, if it be properly disposed, you may purchase golden reputation.

But you must reverence your elders more, and be less eager for immediate applause.

You will judge of the sincerity of my praise by the frankness of my censure.

Farewell! And believe me,

Yours faithfully,